Vancouver BC, July 17th for Peer Workers and July 25th for Researchers/Providers
Peer Worker Support Standard Development Project
The initial plan for this project is to schedule two focus groups, one for peer workers, and one for researchers/health care providers. The focus groups will provide a discussion forum to explore what supports are currently in use, any gaps in those supports, and what kinds of additional supports are needed. We will draw upon existing models that can potentially be adapted to more appropriately support peer workers living with HIV working out of a CBO, and/or on a research project. Many existing supports have proven inadequate or poorly utilized by peer workers to the point of non-functionality.
This is intended to be the starting place to develop industry support standards in the form of a “tool kit” where new research teams or project directors can select support tools that fit their specific needs while becoming aware of the basic support requirements for peer workers living with HIV on any project/program. Once developed, this tool kit will remain a work in progress and will be regularly updated as peer worker support needs change and evolve. It is intended that eventual wide spread industry use and input from those who utilize the toolkit will organically promote its utility as the industry standard when developing projects employing people living with HIV.
The need for an industry standard of support tools when employing people living with HIV has come directly from the HIV community.”
The need for an industry standard of support tools when employing people from the target community has come directly from the members themselves. Peer workers; including peer research associates, peer health system navigators, peer counsellors, and other peer workers who choose employment to suit their personal circumstances have voiced their concerns on the inadequacies of predominantly social-work-adapted support systems that don’t meet their needs as workers. Some existing supports need merely to be modified further to accommodate the needs of peer workers, others need to be created intentionally and utilized systemically on new and existing research and program based projects. The excerpt below is the perspective of an experienced coordinator of peer research associates and eloquently describes his thoughts on the needs and gaps in support that currently exists.
Quote from Ben Stevenson- PRA Coordinator for the Food Security Study
From my somewhat limited experience supporting peer researchers, I can say that the biggest thing I was able to provide was authentic empathic engagement. I was always there for the researchers when they needed to debrief, hear their concerns and help facilitate getting their needs met or further bolstering the supportive environment they were working in (e.g. through talking to community organization staff or research investigators to provide additional resources (time, money or personnel) to help the peer through the situation). I made a concerted effort to do this too – I didn’t just wait for peers to come to me with ‘problems’.
We had lots of personal one-on-one conversations to make sure peers had safe channels to express their views as well as group conversations to facilitate peer team building, awareness building and solidarity.
I always made sure to emphasize that peers took seriously the practice of ‘self-care’ and always tried to assist or accommodate them in this regard, sometimes to the delay of crucial research deadlines, but for the benefit of the peer’s health.
One of the biggest problems I faced though was in hiring peers who were perhaps not ready for the job at hand and who faced continual psychological interpersonal or community-level barriers to full involvement with the work we were doing. Whether the case was having a peer not fully managing their drug addiction, not having fully processed the stigma and trauma of sero-converting amongst a First Nations community who were not understanding, or who had concurrent illnesses that were just too debilitating to prioritize the work at hand, these were instances were few supports would have prevented a ‘crash and burn’ scenario. It was more a case of not hiring the right person for the job, although in some communities, there are so few candidates among those living with HIV to be peer workers, that we had to do the best we could with hiring.
To help structure this on-going conversation, I’d like to throw an idea out there that we outline a continuum of supports necessary for peers at different levels of ‘work-readiness’, stratified by different levels of work intensity and scope (i.e. part time, contract work, professional full time), current obstacles being faced, and gaps that we hope to fill with newly designed support systems for HIV peer workers.
One of the support concepts I’d be interested in pursuing too is how to facilitate better self-care practices among peer workers. This is not to ‘off-load’ the issue from practitioners and researchers on to peers, but rather to be explicit about the fundamental limitations we face with lack of resources or strict institutional working environments.
Some studies suggest that finding ‘meaning’ in one’s situation is a crucial step to being ready for self-care with chronic illnesses or experienced stigma/oppression/loss. In this regard, I might connect self-care to the authentic empathy piece I was talking about earlier, and suggest that one great way of supporting peers is be making their work meaningful (MIPA obviously fits here) which is either done through, a.) providing more participatory avenues in decision-making or analysis, b.) tailoring work relationships to the individual and c.) connecting with people on a ‘personal level’ to find where their values lie in whatever peer work they’re doing (although maintaining boundaries becomes here) and d.) acknowledging how much emotion and feeling goes into and comes with this work.
Please contact me if you’d like more information on this project, or to be put on the list to receive the results!